Highway Accident Brief: Multiple-Vehicle Collision and Fire

On March 8, 2002, about 1:18 p.m., a Union Pacific Railroad (UP) work crew was replacing rail near the town of Cuervo, New Mexico. Open-flame track-mounted torches were being used to heat the new rail before attaching it to crossties. As the work crew proceeded eastbound on the track, a smoldering railroad crosstie ignited a large, fast-moving brush fire. High winds drove the fire and smoke in a southeasterly direction toward Interstate 40 (I-40). The smoke eventually blew across the highway, reducing visibility in all four lanes. Twelve vehicles on the roadway collided, resulting in 7 fatalities, 3 serious injuries, and 13 minor injuries. I-40 is a four-lane rural principal arterial highway, which runs parallel to the rail track and is located 7/10 mile to the south. An 80-foot-wide grassy median separates the two eastbound and two westbound lanes of I-40; the posted speed limit is 75 mph. According to witnesses and drivers on I-40, the density of the smoke varied along the highway. An eastbound 1999 Jeep sport utility vehicle and a 1989 U-haul straight truck towing a passenger car drove into the smoke near milepost (MP) 290.7, where—according to one driver—both vehicles slowed because of reduced visibility. A 1999 Kenworth truck tractor-semitrailer, owned by Kurtz Trucking Ltd. (Kurtz), and traveling behind the slower moving U-haul truck and Jeep, entered the area of thickened smoke and collided with both vehicles. The Kurtz truck then stopped in the right lane, partially blocking the left lane. The ensuing fire engulfed all three vehicles. The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the work crew foreman’s failure to consider the effects of high winds on the open-flame rail replacement activity. Contributing to the accident was the lack of specific guidance for the work crew on the fire hazards of welding, grinding, or cutting operations. The failure of the motorists to slow their vehicles sufficiently as they entered the area of reduced visibility contributed to the severity of the accident.


  • English

Media Info

  • Media Type: Web
  • Features: Figures;
  • Pagination: 4p

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01001989
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Report/Paper Numbers: NTSB/HAB-05/01, Accident No. HWY-02-FH-012
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: Jul 8 2005 12:23PM